It’s The Water

In the several reviews that followed the release of Jared Diamond’s book Collapse, it seemed as though a multitude of the reviewers concentrated solely on Diamond’s summary of the event’s that led to the end of human occupation of Easter Island. The tone was universal, as though this information was some sort of shocking revelation. More than ten years previous, while I was in grad school for archaeology, I was in a seminar about societal complexity and collapse. The opening statement was about Easter Island.

“The last person, who cut down the last tree on the island, knew exactly what they were doing.”

It was a simple testament, that humans in groups have the capability to overuse the resources they need to survive, even when individuals maybe fully cognizant of that reality.

Withing the last couple of months, I’ve noticed more than a few news items relating to shortages of a very important resource. I’m not talking about corn and rice. I’m talking about water. Have humans every really been all that good about water? Even Frontinus wrote about the growth of the Roman aqueducts as they reacted to population growth, not planning ahead for it, always fighting shortfalls in supply.

There was a chilling piece in WIRED recently. Many outlets have covered the fight that has been taking place between several southern states as of late. McNiel/Lehrer (I’ll still call it that, I’m old) had a great piece about California’s impending water problems. It seemed to paint the picture that Northern California was concerned with growing food while Southern California was concerned about keeping their golf courses green.

The one story that sent a real chill up my spine after a few minutes of consideration was recently on Frontline World. It was a short, ten minute story that covered the shrinking glaciers in the Himalayas and the simply huge numbers of people that will be affected. There are over a billion people north of the Himalayas that depend on the various rivers that flow out of the mountains in their direction. The over a billion people that live south of the mountains are in a similar situation. What happens when either India or China start diverting supplies away from the other? Humans have quite easily gone to war over various commodities that they don’t need to live such as olives, sugar and cocaine. What happens when people with nuclear weapons start running out of water?

Just because the various states don’t have nukes pointing at each other does not mean things can’t get at least a little nasty. That fight is for expensive lawyers where water rights can and easily do spend many years in litigation. Think about that the next time you water your lawn or go golfing. No human died and no culture collapsed for lack of either.

16 Responses to “It’s The Water”

  1. The Overhead Wire

    Another chapter in the book discusses water as well. The fall of the civilization in Arizona around Mesa Verde. I lent the book to someone but it seemed that this was as important a consideration in their collapse as it was the trees they were felling. Some are also planning to ring you over the filter as well including T Boone Pickens who has bought up a lot of water rights in west Texas.

    But lets not forget countries fighting each other, the Great Lakes area is under tremendous pressure to divert water to southern states that already get diversions from other places like Arizona.

  2. PostModernDecay

    Think about what is fueling a lot of the water usage in Arizona: unsustainable suburban sprawl. Any and all economic structures that depend on expansion will eventually collapse. It doesn’t matter whether you’re the Roman Empire or WorldCom.

  3. Sparkyhodgo

    Right on. Re California, I saw last winter that Shasta Lake is nearly empty: a giant red bathtub, with boat launches extending down into the mud.

    Water isn’t like many other resources. A city can still survive with environmental issues like earthquakes, rising oil prices, soil erosion, and deforestation (however unpleasant it may be.) But no city can survive without water. It’s a make-or-break resource. And the human race is running out of fresh water in too many places to mention. Mexico City is sinking from aquifer depletion; so are the Great Plains. We’re building Dubai and Phoenix and Vegas and Greater LA all in water-critical areas. Mark my words: one day will come the day of reckoning, and by mid-century today’s metropolises of the desert will be tomorrow’s ghost towns.

  4. westcoastghost

    worth mentioning: the meat industry is responsible for 1/2 of the water consumption in the U.S.

  5. Dan Staley

    Folk on the Front Range don’t like to hear me saying that there will be depopulation in a generation here. Why? Not enough water.

    I gave a presentation last year to a business group & I didn’t get a briefing on the attendees, so I gave my standard speech on planning on the Front Range – we’ll be water-short due to decreasing snowpack, increasing drought variability, problematic storage (pine beetle epidemic and fire), and more people. I was hastily shown the door, as the group was a group of high-water users looking to come to Colorado.

    BTW – have faith, as there was one guy in the group who trotted out his Limbaugh-ready ‘ain’t no globul warmin’, and the rest of the group quickly dispatched his argument.

  6. J Brer

    We’ve been hearing water scarcity alarmism for decades. Sparky, Dan, we’ve had water distribution technology for milleniums. Water is in abundance everywhere. Sure there are local anomalies, but, with aqueducts, pumps, de-salination plants there isn’t going to be a ‘global water’ problem, because most of the globe is water.

    Take a little drive through California’s central valley and tell me about water shortages.

    So go ahead and make your lawn green and get out the 5-iron, stop worrying so much.

  7. PostModernDecay

    The aquifer under Beijing is dropping by three feet every year. Couple that with a growing population and you’ve got serious trouble ahead.


    Take a little drive through the various sprawling suburbs in Arizona and tell me how desalinization is going to water their lawns and fill their pools.

    Take a little drive through places like Iowa and Kanas and tell me how desalinization is going to help the agriculture that we all depend on to live.


    Half the population does NOT have access to clean water. I’d call that a Global problem, not a local anomalie. (See:

  8. SH

    In China, it’s not just Beijing. There are rivers on the edge of the Tibetan plateau (in northwestern Sichuan not far from the earthquake epicenter) where rivers were already drying up five years ago because of overuse and misuse. Manufacturing and increased standard of living are the culprits. Central government policy is that Beijing and Shanghai will have all their needs met; every major city in China will have priority for water over rural and/or poorer areas. Water is already being siphoned away from people for golf courses in the wealthy coastal areas, despite encroaching desertification. A crisis is approaching, and it will not be slow in arriving.

  9. J Brer

    Countries with higher standard of livings have better numbers for clean water. What does that tell us? As China increases it’s standard of living its citizens will have more clean water, not less.

    Also, the percentage of world population with access to clean water has been increasing for decades, probably centuries. So the trend is for cleaner water for more people, not less.

    PostModernDecay, I can’t believe you are citing the Romans as evidence of humans being not good at water. The Romans invented water networks. They kicked ass with water. I think I’ll go take a shower now.

  10. Dan Staley

    Clean water is a subset of the larger issue, which most policy-makers and water managers understand.

    IOW: clean water doesn’t frame the issue properly.

  11. SH

    As China has increased its standard of living, more people have access to clean water, which is exactly why it’s being used at such great rates, which is one reason that rivers and aquifers are drying up. When you have hundreds of millions of people turn into germophobes over a single decade it affects water use. A higher standard of living in China has also brought about single-family homes on single-family lots, something that simply did not exist before the mid 1990s. This has in turn brought about lawns as status symbol, which increase water usage. The higher standard of living has also brought developers who are tearing up agricultural land to make golf courses, which are major water mis-users.

    Access to clean drinking and washing water is of extreme importance, and China has been working on that. But use of the clean drinking and washing water in cities used to be regulated, whereas it is now no longer restricted in any way. This has led to gross over-use.

  12. Rightchus Dude

    Right on, J Brer

    Dude when I hear about rolling black-outs I always turn on ALL the lights in my apartment. I watch the tv and listen to the stereo and let a dvd play even though i’m watching tv. If I can I try to be downloading something at the same time on my compter.

    Water shortages? Only when my roommate uses all the hot water before I can shower. I always flush at least three times to.

    Its all good to cause we’ll just take water from someplace else if we need to. Having a kick ass milatary is awesome.

  13. kent

    westcoastghost – You’re kidding. Where do you get that data.

    We will end up doing what they do in most of the Middle East – desalinization plants.

  14. Dan Staley

    Kent: I don’t know whether the fraction given is exactly correct, but its in the ballpark. And I’d like to know how you’re going to pump water uphill from the Gulf all the way to Kansas. Sure.

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